Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 27, 2009


NPR - Even with air conditioning, Washington, D.C., is a hot and humid place in the summer, and when Abraham Lincoln was president, the summers were even worse: On top of the heat and humidity, there was the Civil War.

So for his three summers in office, starting in 1862, Lincoln moved out of the White House to a not-too-distant cottage on a hill just off Georgia Avenue, one of the capital's main thoroughfares.

Tucked away from the road on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, the cottage sits on one of the highest points of the city and offers a nice breeze, tall trees and swaths of sloping green lawns. Lincoln spent about one-quarter of his presidency there. . .

Frank Milligan, the director of the Lincoln Cottage, says much of the information about the former president comes from soldiers who guarded Lincoln when he was in residence there. . .

The soldiers describe Lincoln's walks around the grounds, as well as his tendency to pop his head into their tents in the evening to see his soldier "boys." He also sat on the veranda, rocking and taking in the view of the incomplete Capitol dome to the south.

Milligan calls the porch "Lincoln's escape" - but it wasn't a total escape. Ambulances would pass by carrying the war's wounded, and the first national veterans' cemetery was on the cottage grounds.

Still, Lincoln could enjoy the hillside breezes while he jotted notes for the Emancipation Proclamation or thought through major policies. And it was a refuge from the White House routine - which, Milligan says, Lincoln didn't like. . .

Many mornings, David Derickson, the captain of Lincoln's cavalry guard, had to pry the president out of the cottage library to get him to go to work.

"Typically, [Derickson] said, he would find [Lincoln] here reading Shakespeare or the Bible or military strategy," Milligan says. "And Derickson would get him up and into the front room for his coffee and egg, and on his way down to the White House."

Lincoln's long workdays made for some interesting stories. A Kentuckian's diary entry for July 20, 1862, notes being invited to the Lincoln Cottage for the evening but finding no president present. Disappointed, the diarist and his friends started to ride back to town. En route, they had an unexpected encounter.

"They see this lone horseman galloping toward them, and they describe his coat flapping in the breeze and the top hat on his head," Milligan says. "It's Lincoln, riding alone, galloping back [to the cottage] on a Sunday evening.". . .

By the fall of 1862, Lincoln's military guard and cavalry guard had been assigned to protect him on his commute. Meanwhile, the Civil War got closer. Artillery fire from various nearby battles was heard on the hill. By 1864, Confederates had attacked the capital, and Lincoln's guard was called to the front to defend the city. Mary Lincoln, mad with fear, begged for help.

"Think of it," Milligan says. "The first family of the United States protected by 125 soldiers, and there are 17,000 Confederates a mile away. . .


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